Features, Social Science

The Birth of the Narcissism Revolution

Editor’s note: the following is an extract of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, The Overlook Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2018), 416 pages.

In the months leading up to his death, in 1970, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow began worrying about his legacy. He’d been preparing to write a critique of Esalen ‘and its whole chain’. One of the issues he’d become concerned with was self-esteem. Maslow was famous, most of all, for his hugely influential ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which said that people are motivated to fulfill certain psychological appetites. At the top of his pyramid was ‘actualization’, which was extremely difficult and had, he thought, only been achieved by a few. But just beneath that was ‘esteem’. It seems that Maslow had been carrying out some tests on high-esteeming people that had been the cause of some concern: ‘High scorers in my test of dominance feeling, or self-esteem, were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, less tense, anxious and worried, more apt to accept an offered cigarette, much more apt to make themselves comfortable without bid-ding or invitation.’

He wasn’t the only Human Potential guru who’d apparently come to a place of doubt late in life. According to Dr William Coulson, the chief of staff at Rogers’ Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, ‘After several years in California, Carl got so tired of having aspirants arrive at our door with no intention or ability to WORK that he sent out a letter. It said, in fact, “Less self-esteem, please. More self-discipline.”’

In December 1973, Esalen hosted a conference in San Fran- cisco called ‘Spiritual and Therapeutic Tyranny: The Willingness to Submit’. The Institute’s co-founder, Michael Murphy, had grown troubled, both by his observations of a cultish, guru-worshipping aspect that was developing in some quarters and also by new commercialized forms of personal transformation workshops, such as EST, which took place over two weekends and combined Esalen-style Human Potential thinking with a sales seminar format more familiar in an earlier period of America’s history. EST was created in 1971 by Werner Erhard, an Esalen graduate and student of both Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, who had also been a fan of a Dale Carnegie course he’d attended. Erhard, writes Truett, ‘Americanized the human potential movement in a way that Esalen had never done or tried to do.’ It was an instant success: fifty thousand people took the workshop in its first four years and it ended up boasting celebrity attendees including John Denver, Cher and Peter Gabriel. It represented a kind of business-ification of Human Potential methods that Murphy hoped to distance Esalen from with his conference.

It didn’t go well. Despite being organized by a mostly female committee, all twenty-six speakers were male – which led to protests, outside the venue, by feminists from Esalen’s San Francisco office. A journalist covering the event, Peter Marin of Harper’s Magazine, described the crowd of several hundred attendees as ‘restless, impatient, volatile; one could feel rising from it a palpable sense of hunger, as if these people had somehow been failed by both the world and their therapies.’ They had come to the conference, he wrote, for the same reason they had attended the workshops: ‘to find help. The human potential movement had still not done for them what it had promised, their lives had remained the same or perhaps worsened, and the new world, the promised transformation, seemed very slow in coming.’ As the event ground on, the audience barracked the panelists and the panelists shouted at each other. In his keynote address, the writer Sam Keen pointed out, devastatingly, that the ‘usually male, privileged’ leaders of the movement had hardly demonstrated, in their own selves, the efficacy of what they preached. ‘The best therapist turns out to have a clay heart. And Fritz was a dirty old man. And Freud couldn’t give up cigars. And Bill Schutz doesn’t jump for joy.’ It was a criticism redolent of an observation made by a former lover of Michael Murphy, who had himself suffered lifelong mental-health problems: ‘He got a million dollars’ worth of advice from some of the best psychologists in the country. None of it helped.’

Peter Marin’s report on the conference would end up being part of a cover story for Harper’s, published in October 1975. He captured what happened when Christian introspection met Human Potential’s belief that perfection, not evil, lay in our souls. The speakers, wrote Marin, exhibited ‘a tyrannical refusal to acknowledge the existence of a world larger than the self’ and when the audience questioned the panellists, ‘the questions they asked were invariably concerned with themselves, were about self-denial or self-esteem, all centred on the ego, all turned inwards’. The Human Potential Movement had posed the Western self a question: if God is inside all of us, then doesn’t it naturally follow that we are all Gods? Now the Western self had given its answer. Marin called his story ‘The New Narcissism’. It described the stunning darkness of Esalen’s conviction that, as gods, all humans have complete responsibility for everything that happens to them, even including the Jews that ‘burned’ in the Holocaust. When Marin asked one counsellor, at the institute, whether we owe anything to a child starving in the African desert, she snapped angrily back at him, ‘What can I do if a child is determined to starve?’

Ten months later, America’s chief chronicler of culture, Tom Wolfe, would author his own cover story on the subject, this time in New York Magazine. He named Esalen ‘Lemon Session Central’ and described the programmes of Fritz and Schutz in wild and cynical terms. ‘Outsiders, hearing of these sessions, wondered what on earth their appeal was,’ he wrote. ‘Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.’ Wolfe’s piece was called ‘The “ME” Decade’.

The old-age concerns of Maslow and Rogers had come too late. Their bright ideas had run out of control. But this feel-good American revolution, in which the interior self was recast as holy, and took responsibility for everything that happened to it, would turn out to be perfect for the coming times. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the economy underwent new, dramatic changes, the English-speaking nations became feverish with the idea that all of society’s problems, from unemployment to child abuse to domestic violence, could be solved by teaching the people to believe in their authentic, godlike selves. This harsh new world would be no place for ‘fakes’ or ‘shitheads’ or ‘weepers’. Everyone was special, and had what it took to thrive. All they had to do was believe.

One of the invited speakers, at Esalen’s terrible conference, was an imposing and angry politician with a deep, wounded-bear voice, who’d had his life changed partly by his experiences at the Institute, having first visited in 1962. He would help take Esalen’s stated mission – ‘that all men somehow possess a divine potentiality; that ways may be worked out – specific, systematic ways – to help, not the few, but the many toward a vastly expanded capacity to learn, to love, to feel deeply, to create’ – into the 1980s and beyond . . . into schools and prisons and courts; into government policy and around the world. He too would be dogged by the imperishable charge that all he was doing was indulging and encouraging narcissism.

He was a reformed Catholic, a disciple of Carl Rogers, an Esalen alumnus and soon to become one of the most powerful men in California. He was John ‘Vasco’ Vasconcellos and the mission of his life would be to give the world self-esteem.


Will Storr is a journalist, novelist and photographer. His features have appeared in numerous newspapers, including the Guardian, Times and Observer. Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us is now available on Amazon.


    • yandoodan says

      Thanks for that. I was interested (but not surprised) to learn that the scientific basis of the self-esteem movement is outright fraudulent, and admitted so by the scientists involved.

  1. Martti O. Suomivuori says

    Thank you, Clinton. The Guardian’s article tells us how important it is that your argument feels right.
    Data can be difficult to analyze and understand. Sometimes it goes against your gut feeling. Sometimes it really is best for everybody to shut up about it and keep the banners flying. The laymen may draw hasty conclusions and finances can suffer.

  2. dirk says

    Ideals change with every generation. On my TV I saw a child (in some ridiculous song contest for youngsters) of maybe 8 yrs old answering a question of the adults around, “What is important for you” :
    -To be yourself, to follow your heart!!-.
    Something that in my youth would have been strange and incomprehensible for adults and childeren alike, but now quite normal. Also, I see teenagers with a T-shirt with- No more hunger-, or – Stop melting the icecaps-, but in their behaviour (3x vacations by plane to Bali or Bahamas, having sandwiches with wood smoked salmon) they seem to forget completely the implications of such, they are even angry if you remind them of the incongruencies. Narcism, invented by the old Greeks, at full speed now!

  3. Sylv says

    The marketing of self-help movements, complete with gurus and seminars and books and lectures, requires bold statements of purpose that tend to the “one theory to explain everything” extreme. You’ll never sell your diet program by saying bland, sensible things like “maybe have a bowl of oatmeal, it’s reasonably healthy if you don’t add too much sugar,” and you’ll certainly never be able to sell your wide array of doctor-approved oat-based meal options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Seriously, you have to start eating oats and nothing but oats right now or you’ll definitely die from a heart attack! Why are you not eating oats? It might already be too late for you.) Likewise you’ll never sell your self-help cult by saying “now that your basic needs are being met, maybe stop being so hard on yourself all the time, because it’s making you feel bad for no reason.” Oh no. A little self-esteem isn’t enough, it’s gotta be the end-all-be-all or else you’re going to be stuck with a warehouse full of these books on tape that nobody is buying.

    Wrapping it up in a secular version of the Just World Fallacy is a natural fit too — poor starving children don’t find themselves in that position because God hates them — that’s old, outmoded thinking — they find themselves in that position because they choose to be poor and to starve, due to low self esteem. If only they could attend these quite reasonably priced seminars, they’d surely take some much-needed time to examine their choices. Yep, there’s nothing people living at the top of Maslow’s pyramid like hearing more than that they deserve to be perched up there, and everybody still trying to claw their way out of the first tier deserves to be down there, so all is right with the world. Don’t concern yourself with those unenlightened souls struggling to meet their basic needs, the great moral work you are engaged in is reciting a list of things you like about yourself in the mirror every morning and then going out and making money!

    I read Maslow’s hierarchy to be quite explicitly saying that self-actualization is a luxury that only matters to people with enough to eat and roofs over their heads, and that maybe helping people less fortunate than you might be a good way to engage in self-actualization, but then again nobody is paying thousands upon thousands of dollars to hear my seminars, so what do I know?

    • Steve says

      “poor starving children don’t find themselves in that position because God hates them — that’s old, outmoded thinking”

      Nobody has ever thought that. Well, excepting imbeciles.

  4. Sylv says

    Au contraire. Prosperity gospel is a popular and politically potent strain of evangelical Christianity, particularly in the United States, that explicitly links wealth to virtue (and its absence to vice.) There are also plentiful examples of Christians, yes, even modern Christians, blaming natural disasters on sin, in keeping with the numerous Old Testament stories where God wipes out entire cities, or in one case the firstborn children of Egypt, for the sins of their leaders. (In one tale He floods the entire world!) There is a long tradition of blaming illnesses on sin, up to and including the AIDS crisis, which has to date claimed millions of children’s lives. And of course, Christianity’s role in justifying colonialism traded heavily on a view that non-Christians deserved their ignoble fates. And this was true not only for the imperial religion of Catholicism, which practiced a convert-or-die theology, but Calvinism with its doctrine of predestination, which conveniently tells followers that all the suffering in the world is an unavoidable part of God’s Plan.

    Nor is Christianity alone in building doctrine around a Just World Fallacy. The concept of Karma as it has historically been applied upholds the caste system, to pick but one example out of many.

    Just World Fallacies do not have to be religious in nature. It might be more accurate to say that the idea that the world is fair has universal appeal to people who are comfortable with the status quo, and that popular belief systems intended to appeal to those people will often incorporate some version of it into their doctrine. The Horatio Alger / Dale Carnegie school of bootstraps capitalism is a good example of an extremely popular secular Just World mythology.

    • Michael O says

      Sylv, sadly I have to agree. I say that as a hesitantly self-identified Protestant Christian of decades. The source documents for Judeo-Christianity are clear in their rejection of self-love and synchrony with world systems. Yet the unfailing willingness of Christianity (Judaism largely excepted) to advance the worst heresies and commit historic brutalities while ignoring the simple, outward-focused Gospel makes me wonder was it ever worthy of my attention? Sadly, as I said.

    • NomNom says

      “There is a long tradition of blaming illnesses on sin, up to and including the AIDS crisis, which has to date claimed millions of children’s lives. ”

      Well if those kids would stop having so much unprotected sex, maybe they’d still be alive.

      /sarc, obviously

  5. Andy H, says

    This mind-candy stuff seems widely thematic, along with quick, easy education, weight-loss, fitness, beauty, and wealth products, services and programs.

    M. Scott Peck began his book, “The Road Less Traveled” with the deceptively simple observation, “Life is difficult.” I think it’s true. If we look at nature all around us, life is a struggle to survive. Among all species, humanity alone, at least in the U.S., seems to have aggressively abandoned this notion. Instead, we seem to have used our vast cranial capacity to reform ourselves around the belief that difficulty is wrong.

    Two parts of the above article interested me the most.

    The first was that the “self-esteem” movement–religionism to its core–was originated via fraud (and still, at least one commenter above persists in criticizing Christianity instead–*sigh*–as if millions of ten-cent prophets haven’t thrummed that tired old saw to death over the last 50 years).

    The second was how easy it is to persuade “scientific researchers” by threatening their funding.

    • Sylv wasn’t exactly putting all the blame on Christianity.

      “Nor is Christianity alone in building doctrine around a Just World Fallacy. The concept of Karma as it has historically been applied upholds the caste system, to pick but one example out of many.”

  6. Aaron says

    This author does not make the important distinction between self help doctrines and self responsibility.

  7. Paul Peterson MD says

    The 60’s and 70’s was remit with such books and workshops. These did prompt individual self esteem over everything else, however they never cautioned with humility. “A wise man make a decision today knowing full well that what he knows maybe proven false tomorrow,” Dr David Hawkins.

    We conflate self esteem with self-confidence when they are different. Self -esteem maybe false and easily overinflated. Self-confidence is more based on prior experience and more grounded in personal history. Self-esteem can be narcissistic. Self confidence is based on constructive humility to know ones impact on other people. We are responsible for our efforts, and good effort can give good outcomes. Yet bad outcomes are just another chance to learn and temper ones confidence.

  8. MMS says

    The “Horatio Alger / Dale Carnegie… myth” is a myth people keep telling me:

    I only wish I could inform my long past Grandfather who swept the textile mill as a poor boy he later owned as a man… Or my maternal Italian grandfather who came here on a ship alone at age 11 with a few dollars and a clean shirt and later sent his Americanized daughters to expensive private schools… Or my orphaned Irish grandmother who as a teenager climbed out a window in to the night to escape a predatory custodial Uncle and later raised a family and owned four homes, simultaneously… Or my great grandmother who hid from the Nazis in an olive barrel…

    They would have loved to know their lives were a myth…

  9. Ken Smithmier says

    Nothing wrong with warranted, earned, self esteem. Unwarranted self esteem, puffed up by those around us who constantly proclaim our goodness and worth, is a false foundation that will ultimately crack under pressure.

  10. The Last Psychiatrist said it best: for any so-called “generation of narcissists” the blame is not on them, but on their parents (literal and metaphorical). With millennials, and post-millennials, whatever they may be called, the blame is squarely on us, Gen X, and whatever the group before us was called. We made them as they are.

      • I must admit I do not get your reference. But I guess, had you wanted to answer in a non-snarky way (I am assuming that’s what that was), you would have.

        • dirk says

          People for whom the name of Dr Spock and his baby books (how to deal with your baby and educate your toddler, let them know they are special, be permissive , don’t be strict and authoritarian) does not sound familiar must be under 30, Spock’s books sold only second to the bible in US and Europe (in China remained unknown, that’s why tiger mother Amy Chua was so popular in the West, it was a logical reaction to and fierce attack on Spock).

          • Aha, sorry then about my assumption. Indeed, I am not aware of those books, I am Easter European. Makes more sense now, thank you.

  11. Ted says

    William Storr, I suppose you might read these comments. I picked up your book expecting it to be a swallow look at our current state, and still worth a read. I was shocked how good and in depth it was. I really felt enlightened. Great job, sir.

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